A historic railroad bridge over the Colorado River could see a complete repair within the next two weeks, but the town of Parker on Saturday has lost more than a simple structure, according to residents.
The FBI is now investigating the area surrounding the 111-year-old Arizona & California Railroad bridge, according to railroad officials. The bridge became engulfed in a fire spanning the bridge’s entire length, and was still smoldering by Sunday afternoon. The fire was first reported at about 10:45 p.m., according to Buckskin Fire Officials, encompassing the bridge’s support structure, railroad ties, and brush growing beneath the bridge itself.
No injuries were reported.
Mike Williams, of A&C parent company Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services, said Monday morning that railroad officials are awaiting a chance to assess damage to the bridge, once federal agents clear the scene.
“Pending a damage assessment, the initial estimate is for a two-week outage for repairs, but we’re hopeful it could be less,” Williams said Monday morning.
According to Parker Town Manager Lori Wedemeyer, the loss of Parker’s railroad bridge comes as a blow not only to the community, but to commerce for the town itself.
“People don’t understand how much the railroad is used in our small community,” Wedemeyer said. “It’s a cheaper, faster way to bring things in from all over – our rail line isn’t for passenger trains, but strictly for consumer goods. The last I heard, (the bridge) is still burning, but people are saying it could be up and running in the next two weeks. A lot of people take the perspective that we’ve just lost a big piece of our history. But we as consumers are going to get hit. We’re a major thoroughfare for these trains, and it’s going to cost more to ship cargo without the bridge.”
The Arizona & California Railroad has been headquartered in Parker since 1991, and until this weekend made routine use of the bridge, which was built nearly four years before Arizona achieved statehood. No estimate for repair costs will be given until A&C officials are able to survey the scene.
According to Parker Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Hamilton, the bridge represents a loss for Parker residents as well as businesses.
“It’s going to have an economic impact,” Hamilton said, “With the commerce that comes through, it’s significant. And historically, it’s a huge loss for our town.”
Until the bridge is repaired, Williams says railroad traffic will be rerouted east of Parker.
Buckskin Fire Chief Troy Maloney said the wooden support structures on the Arizona side of the bridge were heavily heavily involved in fire and a brush fire had started below the bridge. These were quickly extinguished, but the fire had spread to railroad ties further out in the steel sections of the bridge. Maloney said firefighters couldn’t reach these sections with their water streams.
Early in the morning of Sept. 15, Maloney said the decision was made to have Parker and Buckskin firefighters use chainsaws to remove ties to make a fire break. The other ties would be allowed to burn out. He said the bridge would be monitored by the railroad.
Maloney said motorists, boaters and others are advised to use caution when near the bridge.
“People in the area are highly recommended to stay out from under the bridge as large pieces of burning railroad ties will continue to fall into the water,” Maloney said.
Maloney added no cause has been determined.
Among the emergency agencies that responded to the blaze were the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Parker, and Buckskin Fire Departments, San Bernardino Fire, Quartzsite Fire, and Bureau of Indian Affairs Wildland crews.
The A & C is a short line based in Parker. They operate a main line from Cadiz, Calif. to Matthie, Ariz., with trackage rights over the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe into Phoenix. They had a line from Rice, Calif. through Blythe to Ripley, but that line has mostly been abandoned. They interchange with the BNSF at Cadiz and Matthie and Union Pacific in Phoenix.
According to the Genesee & Wyoming website, the A & C’s principal commodities are agricultural products, construction products, lumber and petroleum products.
The largest shipper on the A & C is Rose Acre Farms’ Lone Cactus Egg Farm south of Bouse.
The bridge was completed in 1908 as part of building the original Arizona & California Railway, which took place from 1903 to 1910. The line was a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, or as it was commonly known, the Santa Fe. The Santa Fe was looking for a shorter route between Phoenix and the big markets of California.
The railroad played a key role in the development of Parker. The Santa Fe needed an operations center for the line, and the most likely place was where the line would cross the Colorado River. This point was in the middle of the Colorado River Indian Reservation. Congress deeded one square mile of CRIR land to the railroad. This became the site of the Town of Parker.
The Santa Fe operated the line until 1991. Seeking to cut many of their secondary lines, the line between Matthie and Cadiz was sold to ParkSierra Railgroup and the newly reconstituted Arizona & California Railroad began operations in May 1991. ParkSierra was sold in 2002 to RailAmerica, which was sold to Genesee & Wyoming in 2012.